The Ladies’ Pond on Hampstead Heath is a funny place. It reminds me of one of those impressionist paintings, full of women in a state of undress frolicking in a meadow and basking in a semi-delirious state of joie de vivre. I have mostly only visited in summer before, where the queue to get in snakes all the way to the gate and the water is choc a block with bathers. Even then the water is pretty chilly; on a warm day this June I was suddenly asked to vacate the water as another swimmer received treatment on the poolside for hypothermia. In the winter, such incidents are less common, because only generally only hardcore, experienced swimmers dare venture into the water. The pond is open all year round, even when parts of the water are iced over. I have friends who have swum there on Christmas Day – yes, I have friends who make me look like the sane one.
Previously, the coldest water I have dipped my toes in was 11°c at Victoria Dock and of course that was in a wetsuit. You could wear a wetsuit to the Ladies’ Pond, but it would be a bit like turning up to a goth club in a shellsuit. Although the ladies of the pond are quite adept in using various articles and devices to keep themselves warm (hats, socks, gloves, hot water bottles, flasks and the quintessential bank-breaking Dryrobe), for some reason coating yourself from head to toe in neoprene is a bit of a faux pas. And that is why I found myself squelching across the mud of Hampstead Heath, stripping to my minimalistic Speedo costume and tiptoeing towards the pond. There were five other people there: a woman stoically swimming laps of breaststroke with a steely, determined expression, an extremely thin older lady with a blue tinge to her skin (clearly a regular) and a slightly deranged woman who practically leapt into the water singing a song about Summertime to which she did not know the words, whilst her two friends perched nervously on the jetty.
The chalkboard informed me that the water was an unwelcoming 6°c and that I should “shorten my swim” because “hypothermia is not your friend”. I wondered, not for the first time since I took up open water swimming, what the hell I was doing. I got in the water with surprisingly little hesitation, perhaps because the air was just as cold as the water and the contrast was not as striking as it would be on a hot summer’s day. It took a few seconds for the cold to permeate my skin and then it hit me. It was like electric shocks on my elbows, my body felt simultaneously on fire and like it was fading away into oblivion. I gasped and cursed in a most indecent and unladylike manner and tried to swim as fast as possible to warm myself up. The funny thing about being cold is that it makes you run faster but it also makes you swim slower. I was only doing breaststroke anyway because there was no way I was refrigerating my face in that ridiculous water but I was moving so slowly that I was being lapped by the local ducks. I wondered if it would be okay to get out now and looked at my watch, which informed me I had been in the water for precisely two minutes. As the inspirational poster at the RunThrough races, I didn’t come this far to only go this far, so I gritted my chattering teeth and persevered with two laps of the reduced circuit (they make it smaller in winter so they don’t have to go so far to pull your frozen corpse out if you die).
After the second lap I was actually starting to feel pretty good, but I think this might have been a state of excited delerium, or one of those experiences people get when they are close to death. A large part of that was the feeling of accomplishment from not having chickened out rather than actual enjoyment of the act itself. I beamed at the other swimmers as I came out. “I’m one of you now!” I thought.
The worst bit was the changing room. Even with my entire-day’s-salary Dryrobe on and a hot water bottle on my completely anaesthetised feet, the act of attempting to remove various cold, wet items of swimwear and replace them with slightly warmer and drier clothing items without dropping them on the damp floor with my deadened fingers seemed insurmountable. My skin had turned an angry shade of purple and I had started to shiver. Eventually I got dressed and put the Dryrobe over the top as a coat and then tried to juggle a hot water bottle, a Thermos Flask of ginger tea and a rucksack full of damp swimwear as I shuffled back to Gospel Oak station.
It amazes me that there are people who actively prefer swimming in these temperatures! Give me a hot sunny day and water the temperature of soup any day. I think my Christmas day vest runs has to be the limit of my cold related idiocy.